During the last few weeks those of us of a certain age have lost some childhood, teenage, or young adulthood heroes. A friend of mine – a fabulous singer – has taken the death of Olivia Newton John very hard, partly because she was coming into her musical identity as he was developing his own love of music. Another friend was particularly touched by the death of her role model Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the Star Trek television show at a time when few African American women were cast in leadership roles. And many southern Californians heard the news of Vin Scully’s death with fond memories of his comforting voice wishing us “a very pleasant good evening” and informing us that “It’s time for Dodger baseball.” Finally, I had a basketball jersey when I was in elementary school, with the number 9. After the season I got to keep the Jersey and I removed the number so I could flip it and hang Bill Russell’s number 6 on the wall above my bed – my earliest childhood sports hero. It is sobering to see those whose lives are inspirational to use age or die. We know that one or the other is inevitable, but part of admiring folks is holding in our memory a snapshot of their lives as we appreciated it, instead of allowing them to move on. Likewise, it is a curious thing about death – we know it is inevitable, yet it saddens and surprises us all the same.
I recently read a story about a dad telling his son about the chance meeting that brought him and the boy’s mother together. It was a series of incidents, each of which could easily have gone otherwise, and he ended the story by saying, “It’s hard to believe, but your mother and I were very close to never meeting each other.” The son asked, “If you hadn’t met mom, then who would be my dad?” The correct answer to that question would be, “You would not exist.” But the idea of never-having-existed, what the philosophers call “nonbeing,” is a dreadful thought that sends existentialists into lifelong despair. What kind of dad would foist that burden onto a child? So, the dad said, “I guess one of your mom’s old boyfriends would have been your dad.” ~\_(ツ)_/~
Imagining one’s nonbeing is not just a challenge for children. In his book, The Reason of Following, Robert Scharlemann notes the way we ‘hide ourselves’ in everyday talk about death when we say, “Everyone has to die sometime.” That broad language takes on new meaning when we add, “And I, too, have to die.” Suddenly the “I” that is hidden in the word “Everyone” becomes stark and open. Scharlemann goes on to state “I have to die” differently as, “To die is something that I have.” I carry it around with me; I own it; it is part of who I am. And yet, Scharlemann is right to say that this ‘possession’ is what we hide in everyday talk, partly because we don’t want to appear dreadful or morbid. Some Christian folk quickly point to the resurrection and aver that death is nothing real, but I suspect much of that bravado is just a pious form of ignoring the “I” in “Everyone must die.”
I don’t know if it is healthy or helpful to contemplate our death to a great degree. The “preacher” in Ecclesiastes implies that our inevitable death makes everything else nothing but “vanity.” My own thoughts and faith move in a different direction. Finding the “I” hidden in the phrase, “Everyone must die” can be vastly liberating. Who I am and what I do will always be finite, mortal, temporal, ever “imperfect” in the sense of never-being-completed or perfected. The inescapability of the “I” in “Everyone must die” releases us from grandiose schemes of being eternally young or infinite in our life and accomplishments. Once we let that fantasy go we are open to meeting the Christ of the resurrection, the one for whom death was a reality and yet who lives. If we rush to resurrection too soon, it can be a copout, a way of hiding the “I” in “Everyone.” But, if we find ourselves in the phrase, “Everyone must die,” we reach that moment of finite vulnerability that enables us to embrace as we are embraced by the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Well, those are my ruminations for this morning. And a very pleasant day to all of you.
Mark of St. Mark